The effect of unemployment on our happiness could have radical implications on the way we think about job satisfaction, according to economists at Harvard University and The Brookings Institution in the US. The public often perceive teachers as being fulfilled by their jobs. But could it be that it's not so much what the job is like that determines teachers'
satisfaction, but a completely different variable. Economists and psychologists have in the past argued high unemployment rates induce a negative effect on well-being, even for those with jobs. But this new study by Andrew Eggers, Clifford Gaddy and Carol Graham, which examined the effects on happiness of regional unemployment levels in Russia in the Nineties, could challenge this. They discovered an unexpectedly small but significant effect: each percentage point increase in the local unemployment rate was associated with an increase in the average well-being of those in and out of work.
One possible explanation, they say, is that when we observe our peers'
suffering, we lower our own standards - we perceive ourselves to be better off in grim times. This unusual result highlights the powerful role of psychological mechanisms such as comparison and expectation.
In August 1998 - the midpoint of the study period - Russia went through a sudden economic crisis which included a debt default, a two-fold real devaluation of the currency, and a temporary paralysis of the entire national payments system.
The authors, whose study was published in the Journal of Socio-Economics, say that another recent report in the UK also found that higher rates of regional unemployment increased the happiness of the unemployed.
Before rushing to conclude that threatening unemployment makes those in work feel better about their jobs, Eggers and his colleagues point out their result may have a lot to do with the profound uncertainty engendered by that peculiar period in the Russian economy. When things are difficult, we become more grateful for small certainties - like having a job. Could it be, then, that only when the education system enters a period of turmoil do teachers rediscover job satisfaction? Comparison studies might boost teachers' job satisfaction as they put classroom stresses into perspective.
Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry. His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email: email@example.com